Sort of mismarketed as the “two guys wear luchadore masks go on a Mexican rampage over a girl” movie. Sort of.
Savages often feels like it’s trying really hard to be a Tony Scott movie. True Romance mixed with Man on Fire with a little Dominothrown in for grins. It’s as mixed a bag as that sounds and there are several places where whatever Stone is going for just falls flat. However, the movie is expertly cast and has a sense of fun. The philosophical back and forth is a bit simplistic and doesn’t come to a satisfying conclusion (more on this later) but all in all I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the movie. Most of this is owed to the performances, Stone being a master visualist, and an against-type approach to the conflicts and gonzo characterizations in the film.
The one thing this isn’t, though, is a movie where two guys go on a big action spree against a cartel. There are two action scenes and one is a cheat. I think this could have been a great no-frills action movie but it would have been less interesting, if potentially more satisfying. The one thing you can say about Savages is that it is often interesting in spite of itself. Again, this is because of the characters for which there is a lot of affection in the script, all of which translates to screen even with the creepiest and most villainous ones.
Benicio Del Toro is a creepy fucking sack of shit in this movie. It’s awesome.
In California, the best weed comes from Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) a couple of buddies with very different life philosophies who united to create a drug business. They’re independents and they do very well, creating a product that has super high THC or something. Everybody wants it, including a Mexican cartel led by Elena (Salma Hayek), an aging Cleopatra wannabe and the exact sort of criminal that the reality TV age leads to. She’s dramatic, eccentric, and in deep shit. She is also one of the most rounded out characters in the movie, rare treatment for a villain as cartoonish as she often is. That’s one of the conceits of Savages, though: life is cartoonish. It doesn’t always work but Hayek makes it work for Elena. Chon and Ben run a fairly nonviolent operation, thanks mostly to Ben’s Buddhist sensibilities and a natural charisma in dealing with the young, criminal-lite set that make up their network. Chon, on the other hand, is an ex-Navy SEAL who hasn’t really recovered from his soldiering days. He has a macho, warrior attitude that conflicts with Ben’s preferred way of doing things.
Their relationship is a fully developed bromance, however. They’re partners in the old school sense and the on-the-nose references to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid just makes obvious what is totally apparent anyway. The movie wants their three-way romance with O (Blake Lively) to be the heart of the story but it isn’t. She’s there, yeah, and her voiceover narration is mostly a waste of time spent trying to imitate the lively, unforgettable job that Patricia Arquette did for True Romance. Well, Lively is no Arquette or at least Stone wanted her a bit more laid back or something. At one point Elena points out that Chon and Ben love each other more than her or they wouldn’t share her. This seems like the only time the movie acknowledges an interesting theme but it is sorta left hanging. And anyway, Chon and Ben go through a lot of shit to get her back after Elena has her kidnapped, creating the core conflict of the movie. I’d say it’s a weak link. Elena is a more sympathetic and interesting character than O and though Chon and Ben are interesting and likable, I didn’t really care about O except when she had scenes with other actors making more of their characters.
The scars don’t make the man and Chon should know: he gets shot like 8 times in this movie.
I’ve kind of gone on about these being “interesting characters”. I guess it’s because Savages rarely strays into cliche. The cartel doesn’t feel quite like other cartels you’ve seen in movies. Oily and sadistic as he is, del Toro’s Luardo defies the cartoon framework that the plot and del Toro’s performance create via unusual relationship dynamics with both Elena and Dennis (John Travolta). For example, his scene with Dennis is hilarious and makes him somewhat likable even though he has also tormented and (we find out) raped O. The way Elena treats him like a bratty son and the way he can’t help but react in that role also lends an extra dimension to these people which most crime movies wouldn’t bother with. Elena, meanwhile, has this whole thing with O that is derived from the estrangement she has with her own daughter. Even though Elena is the source of all the trouble in the movie, her relationship with her daughter humanizes her just enough that we care what happens to her.
Everybody except Lively (irony!) is vibrant and charismatic, even the third tier supporting cast (Emile Hirsch, Shea Whigham, etc) have colorful characters and get to have fun with them. There’s a thick layer of eccentricity and youthful energy smeared all over this movie. It feels almost like an extension of Oliver Stone’s commentary in Natural Born Killers except this time his object of fascination is the new, high-tech echelon of criminality. Ben is not like other criminals, after all. He doesn’t care about money and he’s a philanthropist. Faced with the prospect of having to deal with a bunch of bloodthirsty cunts like the Mexican cartels, he’d rather opt out and go do something else. Chon is with Ben, though he thinks the cartel is a lot more dangerous and “no is no answer” than Ben does. This makes Ben more interesting than the average Tony Montana clone who just wants respect and/or money. Chon is maybe a bit more in the Pesci mode so he nicely sidesteps being the “classic drug pusher” one. He seems fairly inert, really, until the violence kicks in. Then he comes alive and Kitsch is totally believable as a Call of Duty era hardened mahfucka soldier guy who can’t quite “shut it off”. Weird, that. I feel like I had to eat two shit sandwiches (John Carter and Battleship) just this year alone to enjoy Kitsch in something actually decent.
Hayek is in turns menacing, maternal, and witty.
Probably the biggest talking point for this movie is going to be its ending. The ending feels like Stone thought he figured out a nifty way to have his cake and eat it too. The big finale is a desert scene, a hostage exchange featuring all the major characters and some sniper cover. By now we know there’s been some intrigue and so on but Stone gives us a colossal fuck-up shootout that ends in a ballsy, somewhat satisfying way: Ben is shot in the throat and dying so Chon sticks all three love birds with a lethal dose of morphine so they can all go out together. It makes sense that Chon would not want to live without Ben, and you really think they’re gonna go for a Pearl Harbor sort of deal with the survivor getting the girl and therefore nixing the undealt with potential for their three-way to go all fucked up at some point.
But it turns out that this whole sequence is just how O imagines it would go. As if her voiceover isn’t obnoxious enough.
So what we get for a “real ending” is a relatively cost-free and happy ending where Dennis shows up to arrest Elena, Ben and Chon go free as informants, and Luardo goes off to form a new cartel with the rarely seen but often mentioned El Azul. It’s kind of a funny ending because Dennis is a ridiculous character who is totally slimey but who is always one step ahead of all these criminals he uses and is used by. It’s one of those “oh, hahaha” endings.
My opinion is that it doesn’t really work. The Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ending makes more thematic sense. Ben indulging Chon’s philosophy for the sake of O and it ultimately getting him killed makes sense. The dark humor of the ending also makes sense. This fluffy “gotchya!” stuff feels like Stone caving to test audiences. I didn’t hate it when I first saw the movie but now I kind of do. It’s just a bad ending for its total lack of impact. It has closure, I guess. All of it is unfortunately delivered in Lively’s uninterested narration. It also includes a definition of “savages” in case we don’t understand why the film is titled that.
These guys are never not fun to watch together.
So at the end of the day, Savages is an interesting mess. It’s not Oliver Stone’s best movie, obviously, and owes too much to Tony Scott anyway. Sometimes this feels like Stone directing a heavily altered Tarantino script (in terms of plotting and character more than dialogue). I think a longer, even more sprawling director’s cut with a coherent ending will do the movie yards of good and I look forward to seeing if that’s how it turns out. Stone is one of those guys who will do a recut to get closer to his original vision, after all (see: Alexander versions 1 through 15).
If nothing else, at least Kitsch is working with some interesting people in a movie that is at least trying to be good.